Shortage of Foreign Language Speakers, Linguists Still Plague State, Intel Community

In its “Report to Accompany S. 1494, the Intelligence Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010,” the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence stated that “the Committee is concerned about the abysmal state of the Intelligence Community’s foreign language programs. The collection of intelligence depends heavily on language, whether information is gathered in the field from a human source or from a technical collection system. Even traditionally nonlinguistic operations such as imagery rely on foreign language skills to focus and direct collection efforts.”

“But almost eight years after the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the shift in focus to a part of the world with different languages than previous targets, the cadre of intelligence professionals capable of speaking, reading, or understanding critical regional languages such as Pashto, Dari or Urdu remains essentially nonexistent,” the Committee’s report continued.

Indeed. The problem of not having enough subject matter specialists who speak the language of their subjects of analysis has been a long and recurring problem. And not just for the IC, but for agencies like the FBI and the Department of State, which also performs important intelligence analytical work through the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). INR provides “value-added independent analysis of events to Department policymakers, ensures that intelligence activities support foreign policy and national security purposes; and serves as the focal point in the Department for ensuring policy review of sensitive counterintelligence and law enforcement activities. INR’s primary mission is to harness intelligence to serve US diplomacy.”

However, “as of October 31, 2008, 31 percent of Foreign Service officers in overseas language-designated positions (LDP) did not meet both the foreign languages speaking and reading proficiency requirements for their positions,” and the State Department continues to face foreign language shortfalls in regions of strategic interest—such as the Near East and South and Central Asia, where about 40 percent of officers in LDPs did not meet requirements,” the Government Accountability Office (GAO) stated in a report released this week.

“Despite efforts to recruit individuals with proficiency in critical languages, shortfalls in supercritical languages, such as Arabic and Chinese, remain at 39 percent,” GAO determined,” adding, “past reports by GAO, State’s Office of the Inspector General, and others have concluded that foreign language shortfalls could be negatively affecting US activities overseas. Overseas fieldwork for this report reaffirmed this conclusion.”

GAO reported that “State’s approach to meeting its foreign language requirements includes an annual review of all LDPs, language training, recruitment of language-proficient staff, and pay incentives for language skills. For example, State trains staff in about 70 languages in Washington and overseas, andhas reported a training success rate of 86 percent. Moreover, State offers bonus points for language-proficient applicants who have passed the Foreign Service exam and has hired 445 officers under this program since 2004. However, various challenges limit the effectiveness of these efforts. According to State, a primary challenge is overall staffing shortages, which limit the number of staff available for language training, as well as the recent increase in LDPs.”

GAO reported that “State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements have yielded some results but have not closed persistent gaps and reflect, in part, a lack of a comprehensive, strategic approach. State officials have said that the department’s plan for meeting its foreign language requirements is spread throughout a number of documents that address these needs; however these documents are not linked to each other and do not contain measurable goals, objectives, or milestones for reducing the foreign language gaps.”

“Because these gaps have persisted over several years despite staffing increases,” GAO stated, “we believe that a more comprehensive, strategic approach would help State to more effectively guide its efforts and assess its progress in meeting its foreign language requirements.”

To address the State Department’s persistent foreign language shortfalls, GAO recommended that the Secretary of State develop a comprehensive, strategic plan that links all of State’s efforts to meet its foreign language requirements.

The State Department “generally agreed” with GAO’s recommendations.

Meanwhile, the IC also continues to suffer from the same problems. “The Senate intelligence committee stated that it “is concerned that persistent critical shortages in some languages contribute to the loss of intelligence information and affect the ability of the Intelligence Community to process and exploit what it does collect. This seriously hampers the nation’s
ability to engage constructively and appropriately overseas.”

The Intelligence Reform Act that overhauled the IC and created the new Office of Director of National Intelligence required the DNI to identify the linguistic requirements of the Intelligence Community, and to develop a comprehensive plan to meet those requirements.

But “five years later, the ODNI has still not completed an IC-wide comprehensive foreign language plan that designates specific linguist or language requirements, lays out goals or timelines, or designates specific actions required to meet them,” the Committee stated.

“Furthermore,” the Committee’s report said, “individual agency and military service programs aimed at creating strategies to improve foreign language programs are inconsistent across the Intelligence Community. NSA has near real-time visibility of its language-capable employees and hires and trains according to actual needs, but most other Intelligence Community agencies have no similar capability. The new Director of the CIA recently announced a major overhaul of the CIA’s foreign language hiring, training, maintenance, and use policies which should eventually result in a more language capable workforce, but other agencies have not been similarly aggressive. DIA continues to suffer from chronic shortages of language-capable employees, but has not developed a strategy for improvement.”

“To explain their failure to redress critical gaps in national security foreign language capacity, agencies point to their lack of control over clearance processes, shallow hiring pools, the inability to allocate time to training, insufficient resources, and, in some cases, a dearth of qualified instructors,” the Committee stated, adding, “yet, the United States is one of the most polyglot of developed countries—more than one in five Americans speak a language other than English in the home and more than a million citizens are of Middle East or South Asian descent.”

The Committee expects to receive by the end of this year a comprehensive strategy for improving foreign language capabilities across the Intelligence Community, including but not limited to meeting the requirements for translators, interpreters, collectors, analysts, liaison officers and attaches. The Committee also provided additional resources to “address this perpetual shortcoming” in the classified annex of the intel reauthorization bill.

Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the senior Republican on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told the Washington Times for a report on the problem last month that the IC is "behind the eight ball.”

"We’ve been pushing the language issue for an extended period of time. The agencies just didn’t respond," Hoekstra said. "They’d come in. We’d talk about language capability. We’d beat them up. They’d leave. They’d come back a year later, and it wouldn’t be a lot better. We’d beat them up again.

"I can’t explain it. No. 1, Congress has been pestering them. No. 2, you would think it’s important for them to do their job. You could understand it immediately after 9/11. This takes a little time to do to get it right. But still talking about it in 2009 makes no sense at all," Hoekstra said.

A variety of veteran counterterrorists regularly talks to on background agreed, saying that the problem was a problem “even before the 9/11 attacks,” as one said.

According to these sources, some IC components “some years ago” actually “when on a downsizing spree for whatever reason” and fired experienced linguists.

Former CIA and IC officer Robert David Steele has repeatedly complained for years about the failure of the IC and diplomatic corps to “bring on-line” more linguists and subject matter language speakers.

“This isn’t a newly discovered problem,” Steele said, adding “it most definitely impairs the US’s ability to respond in real time to actionable” or otherwise important intelligence – like a possible terrorist attack.

CIA Director Leon Panetta stated last May that the Agency was instituting "an aggressive plan to build the truly multilingual work force we need." He said he wants to double the number of analysts and clandestine service officers who speak foreign languages and to "dramatically transform the way CIA trains in foreign language capability."

That’s something Steele had been calling for for more than a decade.


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